Censoring the Weather

Sir Edward Cook’s The Press in Wartime (published posthumously, 1920) is a good read. Cook had been head of the Press Office, and as chief censor had come in for much criticism from journalists and editors whose work he had hindered.
In this book, he defends himself spiritedly, explaining clearly the reasons for censorship. At the start of the War, incidents from previous campaigns were in the minds of many soldiers. Charles Whibley wrote to the Times in September 1914, reminding them of an incident in 1870, when an inadvertent remark in a British paper had given away the position of the French Army, thereby allowing Moltke to win Sedan. The reporter had mentioned the sun glinting on brass helmets; from this hint, Moltke realised which unit had been seen, and therefore understood the direction in which the French army was moving.
The censors were therefore very strict about the release of any detail that might give away the position of a particular unit. In one case, a photograph of the King inspecting troops was banned from publication – because the troops were identifiable, and the Germans would probably guess that the inspection was a prologue to the men moving into battle. At a time when soldiers of each side were risking their lives in raids to take prisoners, and thereby ascertain which units were fighting in which places, this caution was understandable, but it must have made life frustrating for journalists.
What I like about Cook’s book is his respect for the journalists he restricts, and his recognition that the relationship between censors and newspapermen is necessarily oppositional:.

The enterprising newspaper or news-agency and an efficient censorship are natural enemies; and if the day should ever come when the newspapers, British or neutral, conspired to praise the Press Bureau, it would be a catastrophe for one or the other of us; it would mean either that the journalists had lost their go, or that our censors had been neglecting their duty.

One thing I hadn’t realised is that censorship extended even to the weather reports. For example, it complained about the publication of an advertisement in July 1918 that mentioned rain falling in England ‘from Sunday morn to Saturday night.’ How could a matter of such obvious public knowledge be censorable? As the Manchester Guardian explained in a post-war article defending  the Press Bureau’s from mockery, weather forecasts were crucial information in wartime. Before the War, European weather reports had been compiled based on information from weather stations all over Europe. Now each country kept its weather data secret. The Manchester Guardian mentions a case where German bombers did not make it home because they miscalculated the wind. One can also think of gas attacks that went wrong because the wind changed. And if Haig had had accurate long-term weather forecasts in 1917, surely he would not have attempted Passchendaele in quite the same way.
It’s natural for later generations to feel more sympathy for journalists who are trying to tell the truth than for censors who are trying to suppress it, but Sir Edward Cook makes a very good case for the work of his Bureau.


  1. Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    That’s really cool.

  2. Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Also, weather systems tend to come in from the west, so the Allies had better forecasting ability than the Germans. In WWII, at least (where the same situation obtained) Germany went to some lengths to get meteorological data to the westwards, placing weather stations on the Greenland coast by U-boat and so on.

    • Posted April 24, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      There’s also an interesting if rather bizarre book on the subject called ‘War Weather Vignettes’ by Alexander McAdie published in the US in 1925 showing what an important part the weather played at Jutland & Gallipoli.

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